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Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Church of Scientology (Reformed?)

I will always be grateful, more or less, to the Church of Scientology for providing me with the fodder for one of my first forays into law and religion -- Scientology in Court: A Comparative Analysis and Some Thoughts on Selected Issues in Law and Religion, 47 DePaul L. Rev. 85 (1997).  (Hein Online version available here.)  One of the issues I wrote about there, which makes a cameo appearance in the book I'm currently writing (hence the long intervals between posts, by the way), is the rather complex question of religious fraud -- what constitutes religious fraud, and how and whether the courts should address it.  It is one thing to say that L. Ron Hubbard was a fraud, quite another to say that whether or not Hubbard was a fraud, some of the current officials of the church are, and still another to ask whether any of this matters to the question of the belief of individual members of the church.  In this, Scientology is not much different from any other church: a religion can be based on false factual premises without its individual priests or believers sharing any awareness of the falsity of those premises, and a single church official can be a fraud without other officials or members of the church community sharing in that fraud.

These thoughts come to mind as I read Sunday's New York Times story titled "Breaking With Scientology."  Much of the story, although distressing, is not new: it's a fairly standard account of members leaving the church and the indignities they have to put up with.  And it's difficult to say that the church's response -- that, for example, shunning of apostates is not unheard of in other religions -- is incorrect, although much depends on how you feel about Scientology as an initial matter.

What's new and interesting about the story is that it reverses the usual assumption -- at least, I take it to be the usual assumption -- that you are either in or out of the church, that you either believe it or consider it to be a fraud.  Some of the former members say in the article that it's not the truth of the church as such that they disagree with; they just believe it has been corrupted by some of its leading officials.  It is not unusual to read a story about Scientology's critics and those who have come to reject it; it is more unusual, and quite interesting, to read about Scientology as undergoing the same process of schism that many other churches experience.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 6, 2010 at 09:08 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I think it's clear enough that the 'religious' aspect to Scientology was more or less induced by the lure of tax exemption, and the inherently privileged status religion enjoys in America. Scientology was rejected by the psychiatric community, and a bitter Hubbard wasn't shy about explaining what had to happen next, and why Scientology needed to become a religion. But I also think that whatever fraud was perpetrated by Hubbard should be segregated from the question of religious autonomy; it cannot be the state's role to protect 'defrauded' but sincere religious consumers, lest the courts be forced to decide matters of religious truth, implicating Jefferson and Madison's real concern, I believe, which was an individual's right of conscience.

That said, Scientology continues to operate in a fraudulent manner, despite the sincerity of its adherents. Its structure is designed to reveal its truths in pay-as-you-go fashion, as a commercial enterprise might do. Well-intentioned staff members join to "clear the planet" and wind up horribly mistreated.

The question, I think, is how to balance the individual's right of conscience with their right to notice as to what they can reasonably expect if they join. Scientology wouldn't last long if they had to provide such notice, and there's no doubt they understand this. I'd be less torn on this question if their exempt status was rescinded and they were treated as the business they are. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize Scientology's greedy and predatory behavior, regardless of its members' sincerity.

Posted by: scott pilutik | Mar 6, 2010 10:11:39 PM

It is about time the brain-dead membership demanded some kind of reform from the totalitarian regime Elrong installed to manage staff and extract money from unsuspecting dupes. There was an attempt at reform back in the early 80s but it was quashed by Miscavige and his henchmen. Ironically enough they (Rinder and Rathbun) now have left the cult and believe it was "ruined" by the very man they helped to rule it with an iron fist.

Posted by: Dennis Erlich | Mar 6, 2010 9:41:55 PM

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